Rebellions on the High Seas:
Untold Stories of the Slave Trade

Revolutionary Worker #943, February 8, 1998

"The discovery of gold and silver in the Americas, the extirpation [destruction], enslavement and entombment in the mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production."

Karl Marx, Capital

"Everybody knows that Black people did not `come to this country seeking a better life.' They were kidnapped from their homes in Africa, dragged in chains and loaded onto slave ships--treated not like human beings but like things, commodities to be traded and used to enrich others. Tens of millions of these enslaved Africans died before even reaching America, so terrible were the conditions on the slave ships. Those who survived the trip and were then sold to plantation owners were treated like pieces of machinery. Slaveowners commonly referred to the slaves as `talking tools.' That is how Black people were treated for the first 250 years of their experience in America."

Cold Truth, Liberating Truth:
How this System Has Always
Oppressed Black People,
and How All Oppression
Can Finally Be Ended

"Raphael painted, Luther preached, Corneille wrote, and Milton sang; and through it all, for four hundred years, the dark captives wound to the sea amid the bleaching bones of the dead; for four hundred years the sharks followed the scurrying ships...."

W.E.B. Du Bois

And for 400 years, the murderous trade that brought Africans to the New World as slaves was met by rebellion, revolt, and every kind of resistance.

Today, millions of people have heard the story of how Singbe-pieh--known by the name assigned him by his captors, Joseph Cinqu--broke free of his chains with only a nail and led 30 Africans on the Amistad to freedom in 1839. But the hidden history of the daring resistance on the high seas included 150 recorded rebellions at sea during the slave trade. In Breaking the Chains: African-American Slave Resistance, William Loren Katz documents this little-known story.

"We always keep sentinels upon the hatchways, and have a chest full of small arms, ready loaded and constantly lying at hand, together with some grenade shells, and two of our quarterdeck guns pointing on the deck, and two more out of steerage," the captain of a slave ship wrote in 1693. "We shackle the men two and two while we lie in port, and in sight of their own country, for `tis then they attempt to make their escape and mutiny."

"Slavery is a dangerous business at sea as well as ashore," wrote Captain Philip Drake, a slaver for 50 years. And in 1776 Edward Long wrote that Africans committed "many acts of violence...murdering whole crews, destroying ships when they had it in their power to do so."

Resistance on the slave ships was so common that a new kind of insurance was introduced: insurrection insurance.


Tens of millions of Africans--from the Mende, Ashanti, Ibo, Yoruba, Krumen, Awikan, Mandingo and other peoples--were taken in chains to the slave forts on the West African Coast, known as the Gold Coast. The people were force-marched, sometimes for 1000 miles, shackled and whipped. It was a death march--which two out of five people did not survive. In one account, a slaver, Mungo Park, described how a woman named Nealee was being marched to the Coast to be sold when she became ill and refused to walk. She was put on a donkey but the donkey threw her off, injuring her leg. "Every attempt to carry her forward being thus found ineffectual, the general cry of the coffle [slave caravan] was, kang-tegi, kang-tegi, `cut her throat, cut her throat.' " In the end Nealee was left by the road to die.

On the coast the people were held in the slave factories of the fortified islands and coastal forts. The European slavers kept the Africans in cages. They were naked, branded, and subjected to brutal and humiliating inspections. Rape was commonplace. On one occasion a Catholic bishop sat in an ivory chair on a wharf in the Congo and held out his hand to baptize the slaves who were being rowed in chains to the slave ships before him.

There were many attempts to rebel as the kidnapped people waited within sight of the African coast. Around the year 1699 a Dutch slave ship in the Gulf of Guinea battled African captives who "unknown to any of the ship's crew, possessed themselves of a hammer [and] broke all their fetters in pieces." The Africans came above deck and surprised the crew, and only the arrival of a French and British ship saved the Dutch slavers--20 Africans lost their lives and the others were driven belowdecks.

A crewman on a New England ship anchored off the coast reported that the Africans "got to the powder and Arms at about 3 in the morning, rose upon the whites, and after wounding all of them...ran the vessel ashore...and made their escape."

In 1757, Africans from the shore attacked several slave ships in the harbor and freed their friends and family. And in 1759 on the Gambia River 80 Africans rose up and the rebellion was only stopped when the wounded captain fired his gun into the ammunition room and the ship exploded.

From the coastal forts, the people were packed into ships, chained to racks that were sometimes only 18 inches apart. "The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us," Gustavus Vasa recounted.

For six to ten weeks the people suffered the tortures of this Middle Passage. While pious ship captains wrote hymns like `How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,' the Africans were chained and forced to lie in their own waste. They were handed rotten food and whipped if they refused to eat. One captain, who considered himself `naturally compassionate,' broke the teeth of those who refused to eat. Epidemics of dysentery and smallpox swept the ships. Women were preyed on by ship's crews. A third of the prisoners died at sea. An African man who was assigned the name of Charles Ball told how, "More than a third of us died on the passage, and when we arrived in Charleston, I was not able to stand. It was more than a week after I left the ship before I could straighten my limbs."

In the face of this torture the African prisoners seized every opportunity to resist--with courage and ingenuity. On the British ship Don Carlos, when the crew was weak with disease, the Africans attacked. One crewman reported that the prisoners had knives made from "pieces of iron they had torn off our forecastle floor." But the crew had guns and firepower won that battle.

So determined were the people to be free from slavery that many threw themselves into the sea, rather than be taken after an unsuccessful rebellion. In 1701 a white crewman reported that during a shipboard revolt, 28 Africans were killed or "leapt overboard, and drowned themselves in the ocean with much resolution."

To thwart rebellion, ships' captains cut food and water to keep the prisoners weak. Public executions, whippings and torture were ordered by ship captains to intimidate the prisoners. But these tactics failed to stop the revolts.

In 1727 a British captain tried a more benign approach. For nine days he joined the Africans at mealtime, sitting on the deck and eating with them out of small bowls. On the tenth day a crewman recounted they "beat out his Brains with the little tubs."

The Europeans also wrongly assumed that the Africans had no knowledge of navigation. In 1730 some 96 Africans aboard the Little George got out of their chains and overpowered the crew. Armed crewmen hid in a cabin, but the rebels put guards on the door and kept them lock up, while they sailed back to Africa in nine days. Two years later, Africans on the ship William killed the captain, set the crew adrift and returned home.

Sometimes women played a key role in mutinies at sea. In 1721, off the coast of Sierra Leone, a woman on the Robert served as a spy in a revolt led by "Captain Tomba." The woman sounded the signal and together with Tomba and another man killed two members of the crew. But Tomba and the unknown woman and the mutineers were overwhelmed by crewmen with muskets. The profit motive influenced the ship captain's decision not to kill Tomba, but he made a terrible example of other rebels. John Atkins wrote, "Captain Harding, weighing the Stoutness and Worth of the two slaves [Captain Tomba and a companion] did, as in other Countries they do by Rogues of Dignity, whip and scarify them only; while three others, Abbettors, but not Actors, nor of Strength for it, he sentenced to cruel Deaths; making them first eat the Heart and Liver of one of them killed. The Woman he hoisted up by the Thumbs, whipp'd and slashed her with Knives before the other Slaves till she died."

In 1734 Samuel Waldo, owner of the Africa, ordered his captain and crew to use many armed guards and "put not too much confidence in the Women and Children lest they happen to be instrumental to your being surprised which might be fatal."

Two years after the Amistad uprising, in 1841, Madison Washington led a mutiny on the Creole sailing from Hampton Roads, Virginia to New Orleans with 135 slaves. Nineteen Black slaves seized the ship and sailed to the Bahamas, where they were given asylum.

Mao Tsetung says that where there is oppression there is resistance. And this story of bravery on the high seas is only one hidden chapter in the history of Black resistance in the Americas.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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